In Pictures: 13 things to do with the sun besides getting a tan

How technology is bringing out the best and the oh-so utterly worst in solar innovation

  • Sun worshipers It’s July in the Northern Hemisphere, so occupants are basking in the sun. What a waste! Put it to work while you’re not. Reduce your carbon footprint. Cool off the globe. And don’t forget to update your Facebook page every time you do. Thirteen solar innovations that will, at best, make only the very slightest improvement to human life.

  • Municipal trashcan Massachusetts-based BigBelly Solar created a $3,700 sun-powered trash compactor, with wireless alerts, designed to replace those $100 wire baskets-with-plastic-bags. The company’s “about” Webpage still features a photo of its City of Philadelphia debut (a no-bid $2.2 million contract). The photo here shows a Philly BigBelly as it actually existed in 2010, when the city controller issued a blistering critique of the contract, the city’s implementation, and, like, the whole idea. The vendor said the report was riddled with inaccuracies.

  • Your personal sun-powered sun-tracker You’re basking, using solar cells left and right for the Sustainable Lifestyle and suddenly it hits you: “Wait! We’re talking about ultraviolet rays! My brain is being turned into a poached egg!” (Don’t take our word for it: you can trust the federal EPA – skin cancer, premature aging, eye damage, being mistaken for George Hamilton.) Not to worry. Startup SunSprite will save you with the SunSprite Light Tracker, the “first solar-powered personal sun exposure tracker.” This “personal energy coach” tracks visible and UV light “to improve your energy, mood, and focus, regulate your sleep cycle, and monitor UV exposure.” Price: $149.

  • Sun + beer = icecold Sun is The Enemy of beer. Yet Solar Cool Technologies has turned it into The Friend of beer! Basically, this is a portable refrigerator unit that runs via solar powered battery instead of an electrical outlet. Here’s a video of its debut at CES 2014. The 55-pound cooler packs up to 60 12-ounce cans, so you “can keep your drinks cold [42 degrees] without ice, charge your cellphone, run a radio or even power a blender!” The retail price for this Solar Wonder is $1,200 but if you pre-order, you only have to pay $950.

  • Patio umbrella Most “solar-powered umbrellas” use solar panels to power LED lights at night. But the SolPower 9000 Patio Umbrella uses top-mounted panels to power two USB ports built into a table-high mounting. Power storage keeps them humming on cloudy days. Buyers love it. “I love, love, love this,” posted Amazon customer Lisa Forhan, in Feb. 2014, “not only because it looks great on my deck and keeps my Kindle, phone and laptop charged when I'm relaxing outside, but because…I was able to bring it back out during a recent ice storm and keep my devices charged.” Lists for $199 but currently on sale at Amazon for $156.67. Note: It doesn't come with a base, which may run you another $25 or so.

  • Solarizing outdoor cooking One Earth Designs has solved the terrible problem that afflicts so many of us -- guilty summer cooking. You know: the kind that uses fuel and produces emissions (emissions other than the sweet charring of charcoal-broiled rib eye steak). The SolSource Solar Cooker is basically a big mirror that concentrates and focuses the sun’s rays on the bottom of your pan (which sits on a grate bolted to the crossbeam over the concave mirror surface). Price: $399. One customer’s video on using SolSource to make jambalaya, baby, complete with authentic Cajun soundtrack and dog. Just don’t call it “grilling.”

  • Portable charger Technically, Ray is not a product. It’s an idea whose time has not yet come. It evolved from an original idea submitted to by Brandon Craven apparently in 2011: window blinds with solar panels, feeding electricity to a USB hub. But the final idea is for a solar panel that can attach by suction to a window pane (or use the kickstand at the bottom to prop it up). The USB cable plugs into your iWhatever or other Mobile Goody. But development is currently suspended in what is a highly competitive segment (see Mashable’s April 2014 list of eight solar-powered chargers). Projected retail price: up to $49.99.

  • Soccer ball The World Cup 2014 is upon us and yet no one is using the solar powered soccer ball announced in 2010 by Taiwan-based Greendix. Like so many “solar” products, this one was supposed to improve life for particular groups, in this case the visually impaired, who are being denied the opportunity to bite rival players. The built-in solar panels provide electricity to power motion sensors, so the ball knows you are nearby, and audio alerts, to guide you to the ball. Completely overlooked is the fact that visually impaired, i.e., blind, players still would have no idea if a teammate or rival player – not equipped with solar-powered sensors - is nearby getting ready to bite them.

  • Donkeys How could you not click on a headline like this: “Working their asses off! Turkish farmers charge laptops using solar-powered DONKEYS,” at the UK’s Daily Mail. Yet when you click on the accompanying video, it’s clear that the only thing that’s happening is that herdsman are using the donkeys to transport solar panels and associated gear to remote huts, where the panels are installed on the roofs. The primary purpose, judging from the video, is simply to provide power for lights and other systems and not join Turkish herdsman to the warm if creepy embrace of Twitter and Facebook. The new online journalism motto: “If it’s sun, it runs.”

  • Park benches Advocates of smart cities believe they have struck a blow for, uh, more smartness with Boston’s decision to deploy a number of metal and wood benches that have built-in solar-powered chargers for mobile devices and a cellular link to Verizon Wireless. The Soofa was conceived by Sandra Richter (shown in the photo with Boston Mayor Martin Walsh on one of the benches) and two colleagues in the MIT Media Lab spinoff Changing Environments. As Hizzoner explains it in the press release, in words undoubtedly composed by his PR staff, this is a no brainer: “Your cellphone doesn’t just make phone calls, why should our benches just be seats?”

  • Pontoon boat Until now, to explore the spectacular Lawn Hill Gorge in Australia’s Boodjamulla National Park you had to use, and have, muscles to power a canoe. The nearby outback camping park, Adels Grove, like so many other solar innovators, is doing less with more: just sit in a solar-powered four-ton pontoon boat as it cruises at 2-3 mph through the gorge, emissions free. The only sound the susurration of air, the lap of water, and “Kiss Me Kiss Me” by Australian pop punk band 5 Seconds of Summer surging from your solar-charged iPhone.

  • Power kayaking The website for Solar Powered Kayak doesn’t pull any punches. “Have you ever wanted to experience a kayak but didn't want to do all the paddling?” Frankly, the question seems non-intuitive if you associate kayaks with other modes of muscle-powered water transport, like canoes, or the amazing Peruvian reed boats. But if you don’t, SPK has a deal for you: their attachable outrigger fits easily to your kayak, with three solar panels charging a 12-volt battery that runs the 36-pound Minkota trolling motor. Like we said, using more to do less.

  • Race car One can contemplate the world of professional GT car racing giving way to solar-powered vehicles, but it’s not a pleasant sight. Aston Martin Racing is only proposing to use solar panels, from partner Hanergy Global Solar Power, to run the mandatory air-conditioning systems in its Vantage series line (shown: Vantage GTE), instead of drawing power from the engine or battery. Of course, James Bond didn’t need no stinking solar panels in the Aston Martin DB5. Heck, it probably didn’t even have air conditioning.

  • Dresses To paraphrase Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, “Your cellphone doesn’t just make phone calls, why should our clothes just be, you know, clothes?” But Designer Pauline van Dongen puts it so much more pretentiously. "Wearable Solar is about integrating solar cells into fashion, so by augmenting a garment with solar cells the body can be an extra source of energy," she explained last December at the Wearable Futures event in London. "It's really about the true integration of technology and fashion, which can transcend the realm of gadgets." Shown: a leather and wool prototype, uh, dress, that incorporates flexible solar cells, storing enough energy to half-charge a typical smartphone. Of course, it makes you look like an extra in one of the “Twilight” movies is a small price to pay for a Sustainable Alternative.

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